Ticket prices coax tough decisions for ND football fans

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Football fans hoping to see Notre Dame’s marquee home games this season will have to dig a bit deeper into their pockets.

When Notre Dame sent out ticket lottery applications to donating alumni and special contributors in April, a $25 increase in the top ticket price was disclosed. Last season, the home games against Texas and USC were priced at $125. The matchups against Michigan State and Miami this season will cost fans $150 apiece.

The 20 percent increase may be hard for some fans to stomach.

“My initial reaction was like, ‘Wow,’” said Tom Nash, a 1982 Notre Dame graduate who buys tickets through the lottery annually. “I applied for them, but there was sticker shock, especially the $150 games.”

Jeff Tarullo, a 2011 graduate who lives in Chicago, chose to specifically avoid applying for tickets to the Michigan State and Miami games. It’s the first time since graduating that he’s felt a home game was priced over his limit.

“Other classmates are turned off by the $100 donation and the cost of the ticket up front,” Tarullo said of the minimum donation required of recent graduates to enter the lottery. “So they just go and tailgate. That’s going to turn into my strategy this year, based off of the increasing price for those marquee games.”

Rob Kelly, Notre Dame’s associate athletic director of ticket, premium and technology, has started to receive feedback on the pricing but stands by the decisions made by the ticket office and athletic department.

“I’d like to say that I don’t care what people think, but I do,” Kelly said. “It’s personal.

“On some of the blogs or the message boards, it’s interesting to see the back and forth that goes on, and some of these conversations where somebody will be really upset or outraged. Then somebody will come back in and say, ‘Hey, go look at the secondary market, and you can see that obviously Notre Dame isn’t capturing the value they could ask for if they wanted to per the secondary market.’

“As a personal commentary, that’s certainly not our goal.”

Setting the price

When Notre Dame switched to variable — or tiered — ticket pricing in 2011, it opened the door for the Irish to charge more for marquee games annually. At the same time, the ticket office has endeavored to keep at least one game at a lower price point.

While the cheapest ticket has only increased from $70 to $75 since 2011, the most expensive ticket has nearly doubled, from $80 to $150.

The process in setting the different pricing tiers is completed with two main objectives.

“One, we look at where we’ve been historically,” Kelly said. “That’s important to us. We try not to grow ticket prices too quickly. And we want to give people a sense of expectation. That there’s a steadiness in the philosophy or the plan around our pricing." 

Secondly, Kelly, who started in his current role in 2013, wants to continue to broaden access for fans following the completion of the Campus Crossroads renovation project on Notre Dame Stadium in 2017.

“Are there ways we can actually find lower price points in the stadium to offer on a basis that opens up a ticket price to constituents that maybe didn’t have access before?” Kelly said.

Yet the variance on ticket prices has continued to increase. The first season Notre Dame introduced its tiered pricing, only two levels of tickets were offered. This season, the six home games are priced at four different levels, which happened for the first time in 2014.

The season-opener against Nevada is the only game priced at the $75 level. Tickets for the Duke and Virginia Tech games cost $85, with the Stanford game slated at $125. The Michigan State and Miami games sit at the highest level, $150.

Based on experience, Kelly doesn’t anticipate having trouble selling tickets to the highest-priced games, against Michigan State and Miami. The Notre Dame Stadium sellout streak of 249 games, with 80,795 seats to sell, doesn't appear in jeopardy yet.

“A lot of people have other things they go to before they think about price,” Kelly said. “What we find the highest correlating factors are in how people choose what game they want to go to — and it particularly speaks to that in the lottery — is time of year."

“We find that the home opener is popular, because hope springs eternal. It’s the first home game. Even if it’s not a highly desirable opponent, it’s a game that people can get excited about and want to be at."

The home opener has been priced at the lowest tier every season but one ($125 for Texas in 2015), since Notre Dame started using dynamic pricing.

“It’s harder at the end of the year when the weather isn’t necessarily cooperative," Kelly said of demand. "And the other factor is what I’ll call the prestige of the opponent, because that comes in many different ways.”

The prestige of an opponent, as Kelly described it, can be impacted by how good the team is projected to be, how frequently that team plays at Notre Dame and if there’s a running rivalry between the two teams.

Even though Miami has struggled in recent years, the history the two teams built while playing annually from 1971-90 led Kelly’s office to believe those tickets will be in demand. As for Michigan State, few teams in the country have been as consistently dominant in the past several seasons. Whether or not both games will be competitive has little impact on Notre Dame’s process. 

Shortly after the 2015 season, Kelly’s staff started researching and planning a pricing strategy. The face value needs approval from the ticket pricing committee, which includes deputy athletic director Jim Fraleigh, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, executive vice president John Affleck-Graves, a representative from the president’s office, and members of the university’s communications and public relations staff.

In February, Kelly’s staff started finalizing the pricing to start renewals for season tickets and lottery applications.

Fitting the market

While many schools have yet to publicly release single-game ticket pricing for this season, Ohio State has already made sure Notre Dame won’t be hosting the game with the highest average for face value in the fall. When the Buckeyes host Michigan in November for the annual rivalry game, the ticket comes with a $195 price tag, plus additional fees.

Those fees that often come with purchasing tickets were dropped by Notre Dame prior to last season and built into the face value price. 

Notre Dame's $150 maximum has been mirrored by different schools as their ceiling for the 2016 season, including Notre Dame at Texas and Alabama at LSU. In limited areas of Penn State’s Beaver Stadium, a ticket for games against Ohio State and Iowa will cost $200, with other locations in the stadium priced as low as $100.

Notre Dame hasn’t set the bar when it comes to price, but it’s coming pretty close. Kelly is aware of that.

“We do benchmarking. It’s super important,” Kelly said. “Nobody wants to be the one that’s sticking out there with the crazy price tag for a ticket, but that doesn’t scare some away.”

The rise in face value hasn’t slowed down the secondary market, where many purchasers resell their tickets online for higher prices.

According to TiqIQ, a secondary market aggregator, no game had a higher secondary market value in the opening weekend last season than Texas at Notre Dame. The week of the game, the lowest price was quoted at $282. The average ticket price rose to $586.14.

Those numbers could indicate an opportunity for Notre Dame to charge more for face value, but Kelly denied that the secondary market has driven the rise in face-value prices.

“It’s something we’re very aware of and we think about a lot,” Kelly said. “We’re not a for-profit entity. It’s not in our nature to maximize the return on the ticket. But to the extent that we can bring more value back to Notre Dame and funnel that value into the mission, that’s super important to us.”

Notre Dame does maintain a ticket resale policy that prohibits purchasers from reselling above face value. Violators can have future purchasing privileges revoked, but the policy can be hard to enforce. Most tickets sold on the secondary market won’t include the seat numbers online to avoid being caught.

Finding a ceiling

John Coughlin, a 1991 graduate, has been pursuing Irish football tickets through the Notre Dame lottery system since 1992. But because Coughlin lives in Raleigh, N.C., he’s applied for tickets to away games more frequently than home games in the past two seasons.

This year, he’s hoping to attend the games at Texas and at North Carolina State, and the home game against Miami. The $150 price tags for the Miami and Texas games didn’t give him any worries.

“Now if it was back under the old system,” Coughlin said, “where you had to mail the money in and they kept it for several months, it might have been a different story. The online process is much better.”

Prior to the 2015 season, the Notre Dame Ticket Office started accepting credit card information that wasn’t charged until the lottery results were completed. In previous years, fans had to send in checks ahead of time and wait for their money to be returned if they didn’t land tickets. The lottery usually accounts for 25,000 to 35,000 tickets per game, Kelly said.

Coughlin hasn’t had much success with the lottery in recent years, so he's started to contemplate dropping out of the lottery and using his annual contribution to the university to purchase guaranteed tickets if the prices continue to rise.

Tom Nash, an ’82 graduate from Indianapolis, requested tickets for all of Notre Dame’s home games through October, the game at Texas and the matchup with Navy in Jacksonville, Fla.

In the past, Nash said, he’s received tickets to 90 percent of the games he’s requested. Ticket prices have yet to make him think twice about his options.

“As long as I’m healthy, I’m sure I’ll still want to go to some games,” Nash said. “Maybe not that many games. It just depends on where my financial status is. If I’m as blessed as I am now, I probably will, because I really enjoy going to those games. It’s not just the game, it’s the whole day or sometimes the whole weekend that’s part of it.”

With the regular increase in prices, Jeff Tarullo, a 2011 graduate from Chicago, may be more likely to request tickets for cheaper games. He appreciates that the season opener is only $75.

“Truthfully, I think that’s a good price point,” Tarullo said. “But the fact that in about five years we’ve gone from every game being $70 to one game being $70 and (the highest ticket) doubled is kind of crazy to me.”

Instead of shelling out $150 to attend the Miami game, Tarullo might spend most of the day in parking lots at Notre Dame. He likely won’t be helping the Irish keep their sellout streak intact that day.

“I might go and tailgate during the day. If someone happens to have a good deal on the ticket or is feeling generous, sure I’ll go to the game,” Tarullo said. “I’m just as happy going to an off-campus house. I’m enjoying the game day experience and spending a little less money.”

Fans cheer as four F18 planes perform a flyover before the Notre Dame-Navy football game on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (Tribune photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

The cost of some single game tickets at Notre Dame has nearly doubled since the university introduced tiered pricing in 2011. While the lowest price has only increased from $70 to $75, the highest price for marquee games has increased from $80 to $150.

2011 SEASON

10/22 USC: $80

9/17 Michigan State: $80

11/19 Boston College: $80

9/3 South Florida: $70

10/8 Air Force: $70

10/29 Navy: $70

2012 SEASON

9/22 Michigan: $83

10/13 Stanford: $83

9/8 Purdue: $73

11/3 Pittsburgh: $73

10/20 BYU: $73

11/17 Wake Forest: $73

2013 SEASON

10/19 USC: $95

9/28 Oklahoma: $95

9/21 Michigan State: $80

11/2 Navy: $80

11/23 BYU: $70

8/31 Temple: $70

2014 SEASON

9/6 Michigan: $110

10/4 Stanford: $95

11/22 Louisville: $85

10/11 North Carolina: $85

11/15 Northwestern: $70

8/30 Rice: $70

2015 SEASON

9/5 Texas: $125

10/17 USC: $125

10/10 Navy: $85

9/19 Georgia Tech: $85

11/14 Wake Forest: $75

9/26 UMass: $75

2016 SEASON

9/17 Michigan State: $150

10/29 Miami: $150

10/15 Stanford: $125

9/24 Duke: $85

11/19 Virginia Tech: $85

9/10 Nevada: $75

This story on Notre Dame football ticket pricing is the first in a two-part series. The second story, which examines season tickets, can be found here: http://goo.gl/bhq2qT